WFU Department of Physics Wake Forest University


Wake Forest Physics
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In Memoriam – Professor Emeritus Bob Brehme

Bob BrehmeOn Monday, February 22, 2016 we lost a valued colleague and teacher, Professor of Physics Bob Brehme.

Bob Brehme grew up and attended high school in the Washington, D.C. area. He graduated from Roanoke College in Salem, VA in 1951 with a BS in physics and then entered graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill where he received the MS Degree in physics in 1953.

Bob was then drafted into the U.S. Army where he served for two years. After his service in the army he returned to Chapel Hill and used the GI Bill to study under Bryce DeWitt, a world renowned expert in relativity, and received a Ph.D. in physics in 1959.

He then came to Wake Forest College in 1959 and filled an open faculty position created by the retirement of longtime professor Billy Speas.

Bob was an outstanding teacher who taught introductory physics, undergraduate mechanics, graduate electricity and magnetism, and graduate relativity. His lectures, always delivered without notes and in clearly audible tones, were famous for precisely filling the available boards with logically arranged equations until the last equation making his final point would be written in the lower corner at the exact end of class. Or so it is remembered and retold by fellow faculty. Shortly before his retirement, he received the John Reinhardt Award for Distinguished Teaching, Wake Forest University's highest award for teaching excellence. He retired in 1995 and continued to teach a course without pay for 3 years.

Bob was eager to spread knowledge of physics within the wider community. He would try to explain general relativity to anyone who asked about it. And occasionally he would receive calls from local citizens who claimed to have plans for a perpetual motion machine of the second kind. Bob was always willing to go through these plans and find the error in each case.

He was an active participant in faculty meetings and served on many faculty committees.

Two of Bob’s research achievements are so useful and important that they have been heavily referenced. One of these is a seminal paper that he wrote with his Ph.D. adviser Bryce DeWitt in 1959 and published in 1960. This paper resolved an apparent paradox concerning the emission of light by charged particles in Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It also provided important mathematical tools that are still in use today.

After coming to Wake Forest, Bob switched his research to the study of more effective ways to teach physics concepts. He published several papers, many on Einstein’s special theory of relativity. In the first of these he came up with diagrams, now called Brehme diagrams, which can be used as an aid to understand how special relativity works. These diagrams are still referenced in the literature today. The research on more effective ways to teach special relativity culminated in a textbook that he coauthored with Richard Sears (of Dartmouth) titled Introduction to the Theory of Relativity, (Addison-Wesley, Reading, 1968), that explained Einstein’s special theory of relativity with exceptional clarity using Brehme diagrams.

Bob was a valued member of the Physics faculty at Wake Forest University for 39 years, and we will always remember his quick wit and sharp mind.


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100 Olin Physical Laboratory
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, NC 27109-7507
Phone: (336) 758-5337, FAX: (336) 758-6142